concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2011


A virtue is a habitual positive moral quality of character. In order to count as a virtue rather than a one-off event, one needs to act in a way that habitually reflects that positive quality, showing that the conditions of one's life and mental processes have adapted in a direction of moral progress. Traditional examples of virtues include qualities like patience, courage, loving-kindness or wisdom: but these qualities can also be harmoniously combined into 'virtue' in general. Accounts of virtue are found both in the Aristotelian Virtue Ethics tradition of Western philosophy and in the Buddhist tradition.

In Middle Way philosophy, virtue is seen as equivalent to objectivity or integration. Broadly speaking, if our energies and ideas are working together effectively, we are better able to overcome limiting assumptions and address the conditions that we encounter through experience. Objectivity is personal, but that does not mean that it is solely individual: it depends on the extent to which personal energies are effectively combined both at the individual and social levels. The ways in which conflicting virtues can be reconciled depends on recognition of the asymmetries that are possible in the development of objectivity. We can become more objective in relation to some kinds of conditions than others (for example, better at appreciating facts than empathising with others), but our degree of objectivity in general depends on the degree of effectiveness with which we can combine these strengths in the practice of the Middle Way.

Middle Way philosophy as a whole cannot be reduced to a type of virtue ethics, because virtue ethics (at least in its stronger or more exclusive forms) appeals only to the moral authority of virtue as the basis of moral judgement. Habits of objectivity in our character make future objective judgements more likely, but we should appreciate the new uncertainties of its application with each new judgement, and also appreciate that objective judgements also depend on the conscious avoidance of limiting dogmas at the time they are made. Habits are, after all, shaped by a concatenation of judgements over a period of time, so that a recognition of the conditioning importance of habits should make us focus more on each individual judgement rather than less.

Virtue ethics, then, only provides one of the three possible modes of judgement that need to be considered when making a moral decision: the other two being consequentialism and deontology (see ethics). Our judgements are not always more objective if they give greater priority to the moral development of our own character or of others' characters, because there may be other conditions to be more urgently addressed that are better represented by consistent moral principles or by consideration of consequences. For example, meditation may be good for the long-term development of my character, but I should not stay meditating on a canal bank while a child drowns in front of me. We need a palette of moral approaches which includes, but is not dominated by, considerations of virtue, from which we select as objectivity demands. This objective selection of approaches, however, is itself the exercise of virtue.

Links to related discussion

Aristotle and MacIntyre from thesis (scroll down to sections ii-iv)

What is Buddhist (i.e. Middle Way) ethics? (from 'A New Buddhist Ethics')

Moral authority (from thesis)


Return to concepts page